The Thrillers You Keep

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Ink has been spilt debating when genre novels become literary fiction. My rule of thumb for recognizing the best in any genre is this: notice what books you keep, won’t lend and need to reread every few years. In detective fiction, for me, this means the books of Ross Macdonald, whose PI hero, Lew Archer, investigated murder and excess in post-war California.

Ross Macdonald was the pen name of the Scottish Canadian-born writer Kenneth Millar. He wrote The Moving Target because he needed money. It was 1949, he was 32 and already he knew his commercial future lay in writing crime novels. But his two first attempts, followed by the ill-advised ‘serious novel’, had generated little income. He wanted to pull his weight financially – his wife, Margaret Millar, was already a successful crime writer. He needed a quick, colourful, saleable book.

Post-war America had an unquenchable appetite for stories about strong capable men working as private eyes. Macdonald’s central character, Lew Archer, a divorced ex-policeman and private investigator ‘working for 65 dollars a day’, was a fictional hero for the time. Macdonald’s publishers were grudging with an advance but the critics did not stint their praise. ‘You can put this on your Chandler, Hammett shelf and it won’t look out of place’ was the critical consensus. Furthermore, Millar had enjoyed writing it. From the outset he acknowledged how much of himself was in the character of Lew Archer. ‘I’m not Archer,’ he later famously remarked, ‘but Archer is me.’

The Moving Target is written with more than a passing nod to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939). Both open with a PI summoned to a mansion to find a missing person. But Chandler’s client, General Sternwood, wants someone found whom he likes and misses. Lew Archer, on the other hand, has to find Ralph Sampson, an absent millionaire, unlovingly described by his wife as ‘Half-man, half- alliga

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Ink has been spilt debating when genre novels become literary fiction. My rule of thumb for recognizing the best in any genre is this: notice what books you keep, won’t lend and need to reread every few years. In detective fiction, for me, this means the books of Ross Macdonald, whose PI hero, Lew Archer, investigated murder and excess in post-war California.

Ross Macdonald was the pen name of the Scottish Canadian-born writer Kenneth Millar. He wrote The Moving Target because he needed money. It was 1949, he was 32 and already he knew his commercial future lay in writing crime novels. But his two first attempts, followed by the ill-advised ‘serious novel’, had generated little income. He wanted to pull his weight financially – his wife, Margaret Millar, was already a successful crime writer. He needed a quick, colourful, saleable book.

Post-war America had an unquenchable appetite for stories about strong capable men working as private eyes. Macdonald’s central character, Lew Archer, a divorced ex-policeman and private investigator ‘working for 65 dollars a day’, was a fictional hero for the time. Macdonald’s publishers were grudging with an advance but the critics did not stint their praise. ‘You can put this on your Chandler, Hammett shelf and it won’t look out of place’ was the critical consensus. Furthermore, Millar had enjoyed writing it. From the outset he acknowledged how much of himself was in the character of Lew Archer. ‘I’m not Archer,’ he later famously remarked, ‘but Archer is me.’

The Moving Target is written with more than a passing nod to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939). Both open with a PI summoned to a mansion to find a missing person. But Chandler’s client, General Sternwood, wants someone found whom he likes and misses. Lew Archer, on the other hand, has to find Ralph Sampson, an absent millionaire, unlovingly described by his wife as ‘Half-man, half- alligator, half-bear trap, with a piggy bank where his heart should be. But I’m twenty years younger and I’m going to survive him.’

The best thrillers share two factors. First, a strongly defined main character who stands for morality in a corrupted world. Lew recognizes that he’s only one step away from the bad guys but he still wants justice. Also, he’s an outsider. He likes entering other people’s lives rather than having commitments of his own. Hence the divorced status. Second, he has to work against a landscape that intrigues us and moves the plot forward. California – ‘a sunny place for shady people’ as another writer memorably put it – takes Archer through post-war LA excess in his search for Ralph: sharp glimpses of film sound stages, louche piano bars and questionable cults. The dialogue is crisp, there’s plenty of action, guns are carried and used, and Lew reveals himself as good at his job. So far, so in tune with Chandler and Hammett. But what was to differentiate him from them was that Archer had a social conscience. Ralph Sampson, already oil-rich, turns out to be funding a people-smuggling racket exploiting Mexican immigrants. Archer comments: ‘It makes it easier to gouge people if you don’t admit they’re human.’

Hammett wrote five books, Chandler wrote seven, but Millar as Ross Macdonald wrote eighteen Lew Archer novels. They paid well but there was something more to this proliferation than sheer facility. He was drawn to crime writing because he recognized evil in himself. Tom Nolan’s fine biography Ross Macdonald (1999) describes a fractured childhood that created two personalities – a quiet, bookish, brilliant student, and a dirt-poor, unsupervised, furious boy who had sex from the age of 8, was getting drunk at 12 and habitually fought and stole.

It took a conscious act of will in his late teenage years to reject his dark side and put himself in the box of sanity – and stay there. He married early and stayed married. He applied his ferocious intelligence to writing successful detective fiction, determined to be a better parent than his own father had been. Jack Millar, son of a Scottish immigrant to Canada, had edited newspapers in the Old West, lived with Indians in the Northwest Territories, and befriended Japanese fishing families in Vancouver. But through bad luck, bad health and bad judgement he ended up in the poorhouse, leaving his wife and son destitute.

A start like this will leave a mark on any child. Certain themes occur again and again in Millar’s intricate and finely crafted plots. The anguished longing for a lost father. The resulting man-boys who can’t achieve maturity because they lack the example to lead them there. Faultlines caused by family secrets that will inevitably fracture under pressure. Young people who, lacking any sense of meaning in life, are seduced by the hope of ‘something utterly new. Something bright and shiny in the road. A moving target.’

What draws me back to his books? Fizzing dialogue. Poetic evocation of the California landscape. Witty, wonderfully perceptive observation of character. But it’s so much more than just brilliant writing. Troubled, failing people are never dismissed with a wisecrack. Their humanity is noted and honoured. Pick up any Ross Macdonald thriller and you’ll find it’s underpinned by a deep compassion.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Frances Donnelly 2020


About the contributor

France Donnelly still lives in Suffolk and still bakes. She was about to move this January and is profoundly grateful that she didn’t. When lockdown ceases she plans to adopt a retired Irish greyhound.

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